After a year of ups and downs, injuries and wavering focus, the Arizona Wildcats (21-10, 10-9) arrived at their final home game still feeling like they probably needed to do some work to get into the postseason.
“I’m not particularly comfortable saying that we’re in for sure,” head coach Dave Rubio said. “I do know that had we lost two matches—this one and ASU—then we wouldn’t have made it in. I was pretty convinced that (the selection committee) wouldn’t. This one hopefully puts us over the top, but I think it’s impossible to leave us out should we beat ASU.”
When they took the court, the No. 23 Wildcats appeared ready to send their seniors off with a final home victory on Senior Day. They also hoped to solidify that postseason resume.
The question was whether they could maintain the intensity long enough to actually secure that much-needed victory over the California Golden Bears (15-15, 7-12). They did, pulling out the 3-2 win (25-17, 18-25, 25-19, 23-25, 15-10), but it went down to the wire.
Ultimately, a fantastic effort by junior setter Julia Patterson and the late substitution of a sophomore were the difference.
The first set was all Arizona. The Wildcats never trailed. The Golden Bears weren’t even able to force a tie after 3-3. Cal watched their opponent pull away early, forcing a timeout at 12-6 in the set.
It didn’t help.
Arizona stretched the lead to seven, then to eight. The Golden Bears were able to save one set point at 24-17, but Shardonee Hayes put the second one away to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead.
Cal came out ready to level things up in the second set. They took the lead from the start, building their advantage to 14-10 before Rubio took his first timeout.
The Wildcats appeared to respond. A kill from Candice Denny and a service ace from Makenna Martin narrowed the margin to 14-12.
Cal quickly adjusted, pushing their lead back to 17-12. Arizona needed another timeout.
The Wildcats couldn’t recover. The Golden Bears padded their lead, closing out the set 25-18 to tie things up at a set apiece.
Arizona came out of the break looking like the team from the first set, opening up a 4-1 lead. The Golden Bears responded with their own statement, going on a 4-1 run of their own to tie it up at five.
Much as Rubio had predicted earlier in the week, Cal played like a team fighting for their own postseason hopes. The Wildcats struggled to put space between themselves and the Pac-12’s tenth-ranked team.
“It was certainly a very up-and-down match for us,” he said. “I don’t think we played particularly well. Some of that—a lot of it—is attributed to Cal. I thought Cal came in very motivated.”
Despite that motivation, Arizona finally took off at 15-all in the third. The Wildcats went on a 10-4 run to close it out and take the 2-1 lead.
With Arizona fighting to end things in four and Cal trying to hang on, neither team could put much distance between themselves and their opponent in the fourth set. When the Golden Bears called timeout trailing 17-19, there had already been 12 ties and seven lead changes in the set. Neither team could build more than a two-point advantage.
Arizona was the first to 20 points, and it looked like it might be the end of the match as they reached 23-21. Cal didn’t see it that way.
The Golden Bears went on a 4-0 run to snatch the set and even things up at two sets each. With only 15 points needed to take the final set and the match, anything could happen.
“So many crazy things can happen in the fifth set,” Rubio said. “No lead is safe when the game is only to 15, when you’re sprinting to 15. Even though we were up eight to whatever it was when we made the switch, I really didn’t feel comfortable until we got to 14.”
The lead was actually 8-1, and Arizona did hold onto it.
The ‘Cats never trailed in the final set, and led by as many as six points. A kill by Katie Smoot finally put an end to the hard-fought match 15-10 in the fifth.
Rubio felt Smoot was key to Arizona taking back control of the match long before the fifth set.
“Set three was where things really got dicey for us,” he said. “And then I made the sub for Katie. Katie went back and jumped top-spin serves, and really kind of gave us some spacing. Gave us a four-five point lead going into the latter half of the game.”
Smoot was a difference maker when the Wildcats needed her. The sophomore finished the night with four kills, four blocks, two digs and a service ace in limited playing time. Several of her teammates laid the groundwork to get the team to that point.
Patterson had a double-double with 17 digs and 45 assists, and was only three kills shy of a triple-double. The seven kills were a career high, while the 17 digs were one short of her career high. She added two service aces and two assisted blocks, stuffing the stat sheet and ending the night with nine points, another season high.
Kendra Dahlke joined her teammate with a double-double, racking up 19 kills and 18 digs. Her 18 digs were one short of her career best, which she set earlier this season against Sacramento State. She also threw in two assists.
Dahlke’s 19 kills put her career mark at 1,368. That places her seventh on the career kills list at Arizona. She needs over 100 kills to move into sixth place, so will likely end her time at Arizona as No. 7 all-time in kills.
Arizona also got a double-double from Paige Whipple, who found the floor with 14 kills and added 14 digs.
The middle blockers got in on the action, too. Devyn Cross threw in nine kills and three total blocks. Hayes added seven kills of her own and tied Cal’s Lauren Forte with a match-high four blocks. Both marks were two shy of her career highs.
Now, it’s on to ASU, where Arizona will wind up their regular season and await the NCAA tournament committee’s decision. The Wildcats know that the Sun Devils will be eager to make that decision more stressful.
“(ASU will be) very similar to tonight’s game,” Dahlke said. “They’re going to give us their all. We’re going to do the same, obviously. They’re always a tough team every year, even if the record doesn’t always show it. You can always expect them to have the firepower to get wins, even if they’re not hitting as much as they’d like.”
“And they’re going to be at home with all of their fans,” Patterson added. “So, it’ll be a fun game. It’s always a fun game.”
Fans can watch the fun beginning at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena. Those unable to make the trip to Tempe can see the match live on Pac-12 Arizona.